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FEATURE

AUTHOR BEBE MOORE CAMPBELL'S LATEST BOOK
IS SET IN POST- RIOT LOS ANGELES

NOVEL TERRITORY
WRITTEN BY CHRISTINE CONKLIN
LOS ANGELES--The barbed wire of South Central, the lush lawns of the San Fernando Valley suburbs, the gated glamour of Bel Air. This is the sprawling landscape of writer Bebe Moore Campbell's life and of her latest novel, Brothers and Sisters. It's a territory that Campbell uses to examine urgent contemporary issues--racism, sexism, capitalism, and the American Dream. The novel is poised for enviable success with an initial printing of 100,000, the film option sold to Touchstone Pictures, and as the main selection of Book-of-the-Month and Quality Paperback Books. Still, Campbell (Education '71), a National Public Radio commentator, knows as well as any journalist that while reports of racial violence, sexual harassment, and economic doom grab headlines, the true human impact and cost can easily be diffused, distanced, disappeared. But not in Campbell's book.

Set in LA just after the violence and destruction that occurred in 1992 after the Rodney King verdict, the period that Campbell refers to as "the civil unrest," Brothers and Sisters puts its characters in a position of personally confronting the political. From the main character, Esther Jackson, a black woman seeking to climb the corporate ranks of Angel City Bank, to Mallory Post, Esther's white colleague with whom she tentatively seeks friendship, to Hector Bonilla, a Latino teller under Esther's supervision, to Hyun, a Korean woman who runs a bakery in Esther's neighborhood„all of Campbell's characters face the facts of life in post-riot LA.

"I really want the reader to experience everybody's take on Los Angeles: black, white, Latino, Asian. I think it's valuable for everybody. And it's particularly valuable for black people to get inside white people's heads," says Campbell. She is sitting behind the wheel of her car, about to embark on a tour of the Los Angeles of her novel. As she speaks she holds herself very straight, not rigid, but poised as if ready immediately to meet and consider an opposing "take." Her face remains calm even as she pauses, seeming to warn herself to be careful. She takes a breath and plunges on: "I think, for those of who have the tendency to see ourselves as victims, that's another kind of shackle. When you see that other people, too, have been dogged and down and really try to understand it, it's freeing. Settling back into the leather driver's seat, both hands firmly grasping the wheel, Campbell steers the car along gently hilly streets. This is Campbell's own neighborhood, a place renamed Park Crest in her novel and inhabited by the book's main character, Esther Jackson. "Solidly black, middle class," Campbell says, gesturing at split-level homes painted in pastel shades, bordered by manicured lawns and bright bursts of flowers. " Esther is not me," Campbell says. "But she is a kind of woman I'm very familiar with. She's corporate, and she's worked hard and gone to the right schools. She's ambitious and moving ahead, but she also wants to meet Mr. Right. And she's dealing with racism and sexism."

And Esther is not dealing with these things entirely well. She is often angry and disabled by that anger. She experiences a bifurcation that is familiar to Campbell, to anyone who has known the alienation that integration, ironically, can cause. "Many, if not all, black people who are successful professionally are straddling two worlds," Campbell says. "There are two ways to be. There's a way to fit in there and a way to fit in here."

For Esther, racism is a key source of her justifiable„but damaging„rage. For Campbell, it seems that race is not so much a disabling problem as a critical puzzle with as many configurations as there are white, black, and brown faces. Campbell as a novelist, has the patience and determination to turn each piece deliberately, eve cautiously, before fitting it to another.

Down a hill, along narrower streets, duplexes nestle on smaller lawns. "Now this is where Tyrone would have lived," Campbell says, describing a blue-collar character in the novel who persuades Esther to date him, despite her reluctance to step below her own hard-earned socioconomic level. At a commercial district, Campbell points to a street corner. " Over there is where Tyrone would hawk his T-shirts, next to the Muslim selling bean pies." A tall black man, dressed in the Muslim garb of white cap or kufi, tunic, and pants, stands on the corner, behind a card table piled high with pastries, leaving no doubt that Campbell's fiction has its roots in reality: personal, political, geographical, historical.

"For me, a novel starts with the characters' childhoods," she says. "Why does Esther, pretty as she is, have any doubts that she's good looking? Well, you have

to go back when she was six years old and going to this white

school and there's these white girls flipping their long blonde hair like this all over the place. " One of Campbell's hands flies up to her own dark cropped hair and swishes imaginary long locks over her shoulder. Then she sits up straight again, pinches her fingers together and holds them up for examination. "And Esther's braid is this long. And then she's back in her own neighborhood and walking past these groups of boys, and they tease her about that."

This ability to slip in and out of characters, to fit and refit the pieces, reflects both Campbell's writing process and her commitment to "everybody's take."

"I heard all these characters' voices, more than I saw them, and I felt their emotions," she says, adding that Brothers and Sisters is a very verbal book. The characters have strong voices and also, occasionally, have strong things to say to each other. Campbell leans forward again, and it seems that she grows a little taller, looking again for that right piece of the puzzle, aware of the significance, and even the danger, of the connection she's about to make.

"There are a lot of white people who don't want to hear about black problems. And by the same token, there are a lot of black people who don't want you humanizing 'their enemy, the white people,' or 'their enemy, the Koreans.' I needed to show that we all have lost, we all have fears, and that as much as whites have to get over their fear and guilt, black people have to get over fear and anger. They're both stum bling blocks." Campbell has the piece now and feels the precision with which she lays it in place. "What's going to help America is for two people to sit down and have a conversation about race„what it feels like to be Korean, Latino, white, black. That's what's going to move us forward, a little bit."

Campbell has had firsthand experience both of a freeing vision to move ahead and of the hard work that such vision and motion entail. When her father and mother separated very early in Campbell's childhood, her father remained in North Carolina, where he worked as a county farm agent. Her correspondence with and relationship to George Moore comprise the subject of her memoir, Sweet Summer published to high praise by G. P. Putnam in 19 8 9. Campbell's mother, Doris Moore, moved herself and her daughter back to Philadelphia, where Moore still lives. A social worker, whose eyes grew "big as silver dollars" when her daughter spoke "incorrectly," using "Negro colloqui alisms," Moore planned early for her daughter's success, entering her in a rigorous public elementary school outside their neighborhood that accepte students from all over the city and had a student body that was about 10 percent black. The teachers were "serious," Campbell says, underlining the word with her inflection.

From a competitive academic high school, Campbell went to Pitt in 1967. Campbell says that her major in elementary education was another example of a choice influenced by race and the social structure of the late '60s in America. "When you're an upwardly mobile, African-American daughter," she explains, "you are either going to be a nurse, a teacher, or a social worker. You want something steady. You want something so you can take care of yourself. It never occurred to me to major in journalism or writing. " Campbell's eyes draw together slightly, as she squints in order to see more clearly what it is that she's stating, sensing that she is both informing and conversing, again, about race. "See, as a black person, your college education was not for this erudite purpose. It was to get you a job, to secure your place in middle-class America so you wouldn't have to scrub somebody's floors."

At Pitt, Campbell was part of the newly formed Black Action Society, which did "consciousness-raising, " culminating in a takeover of the University computer room that eventually led to satisfaction of some of the students' demands„most notably, the creation of a black studies department (now known as Africana studies). Campbell was involved with recruiting more minority students to come to Pitt and then, in response to a high drop-out rate, helped set up a tutorial program to better enable those students to succeed.

" I feel that I am as much an alumna of the Black Action Society as I am of Pitt," Campbell says. Again weighing her words, she explains, " Coming from my high school, it felt normal to me to be one of a few black students in mostly white classes. But what felt wonderful was when I started taking black studies courses, and I was surrounded by other black people and taught by black people so it was almost like a school within a school. Taking African literature courses and getting turned on to Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka and Amos Tutuola„that kind of education was wonderful because I'd never had it before in my life."

Campbell taught preschool and elementary school for five years after graduation, first in Pittsburgh and later in Atlanta and Washington, DC. She then worked as a publicist for Howard University, as an editor of a corporate newsletter for AT&T, and later as the Washington correspondent for Black Enterprise. During that time, she married, had a daughter, divorced, and "stayed in fiction workshops, in order to keep being encouraged," counting among her teachers Toni Cade Bambara and the late John Oliver Killens. She also began sending out stories and was soundly rejected for four or five years, until Essence bought a short story. When she moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago, she was prepared to make her latest leap„to write fiction full time.

She does so, every day, in a small office at the bottom of a narrow set of stairs in her home. Her computer sits on an enormous desk, with a view out to the garden and patio. Above the desk and on two other walls, numerous plaques celebrating awards are mounted, among them: a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Grant; Pitt's Distinguished Black Alumna Award; a National Association of Media Women citation; a framed invitation to the Smithsonian's reception in honor of her first novel, Your Blue Ain't Like Mine, and a copy of the New York Times review of the book, a fictional account of the Emmett Till murder in Mississippi in 1956.

When Campbell speaks of the people and writers who have influenced her, she credits her mother and grandmother for listening to and laughing at her funny stories told around the dinner table, the elementary and high school teachers who encouraged her early writing efforts, her father who inspired her to write him "cliff-hanger story letters" to which he'd have to respond to find out the ending. She tells how she "studies" by reading, observing how Mark Twain does humor, how Edith Wharton masters irony, how Nadine Gordimer sets a tone. And she reflects on how many black writers„in particular James Baldwin, Lucille Clifton, Ntozake Shange, and Toni Morrison„have given her "permission just to be."

The wall adjacent to Campbell's desk is reserved for the faces of a dozen black women, whom Campbell takes the time to name and briefly describe. They peer over her shoulder as she writes, their very images both inspiring and instructing, and in each of them is a quality also found in Campbell, it seems: the dignified posture of Sojourner Truth, the frank appeal of Eartha Kitt, the bold success of Oscar-winner Hattie McDaniel, the transported look on the face of Marian Anderson as she is about to sing, of Maya Angelou about to find the perfect word.

Campbell believes, ultimately, that she is a teacher through writing. "I hope Brothers and Sisters is teaching people how to have a dialogue with each other, how to put themselves in the other person's shoes for a minute. I hope it's teaching everybody to look a little deeper and to see some of the commonalities we have."

From the shopping area of Tyrone's neighborhood, Campbell drives south and turns onto a side street to observe the church that she attends, African Methodist Episcopal, which is also the model for the church in Brothers and Sisters. Over the arched front doorway a mosaic depicts a black man holding a baby, a black woman holding a child. Rising above them is a black angel, wings unfurled, arms open. Neatly lettered beneath is the title of the work, "The Phoenix of South Central."

"Los Angeles is a character in this novel," Campbell asserts. "People, in the book and in reality, are afraid of it because crime is an aspect of its personality, just as seashore breezes are another aspect. This is a novel very much of place, and it could not take place anywhere but Los Angeles."

Campbell steers the car back onto Crenshaw Avenue and heads into South Central Los Angeles, to where the rioting started, although Campbell is quick to point out that it was by no means contained in black neighborhoods nor was it perpetrated by blacks alone. According to Campbell, 51 percent of the rioters were Latino, some were white. Campbell's sense of a deeper story to the violence than the one portrayed in the mainstream media was part of what led her to write Brothers and Sisters.

She vividly remembers the moment in 1992 when she heard the verdict„ that the white police officers accused of beating Rodney King had been acquitted. "I wanted to smash those cops and take a brick and go upside somebody's head," Campbell says. "For about 30 seconds. But I had a deadline, and I had to go downstairs and write. I had to get beyond that. But for people who have noth ing to do but nurse their anger along, that was a very dangerous 30 seconds. I think you have to learn ways to talk things out. And once you talk it out, it's not eating at you anymore." She pauses. "For me, writing is a way of talking it out on the page."

Six months later, Campbell was in Seattle on abook tour when l the nucleus of Brothers and Sisters formed in her head, staying with her for the 16 months it took to complete the nearly 500-page novel.

Slipping into a neighborhood of stucco bungalows, many fenced by chain link, some by barbed wire or grates on windows and doors, Campbell's face does not change. Some people fear South Central, she says, but she doesn't. There are fewer shops, more graffiti. She points to a vacant dirt lot, ringed by cyclone fencing, at the intersection of Florence and Normandie. "Right there is where it started," she says, "and it stretched all the way to Bel Air, all the way back to my place, where the 7-Eleven just around the corner was burned and looted." She pauses to reflect on the connection between fiction and reality. "There are a lot of images of fire in the book. Things are burning up, being destroyed." Then, as always, she presents another take, one that she is equally invested in: the hopeful. "The image of fire, in the novel, is also a healing thing, because you start fresh. It's nature's way of cleansing."

Heading out of South Central, Campbell points out examples of both the damage and the rebuilding. She locates black-owned businesses that were burned and restored, among the mone of the largest insurancecompanies in the West. She mentions the ownerof a chain of 11restaurants, who| watched his own employees lootingl his business. She shakes her head,half in disbelief, half in disgust. These arepieces of the puzzle that she cannotmake fit. A moment later, though, shel smiles when she points to the localpresence of Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She also locates several of the branches of the black-owned bank atwhich her husband is an executive.

Finally, looping back toward her home, Campbell idles at a traffic light outside the mall, a model for the shopping center in the novel that Esther complains carries inferior merchandise for its predominately black clientele. Looming behind Campbell is a 40-foot billboard, another model for a jarring central image in Brothers and Sisters. A black infant, whose limbs are like tiny twigs drawn crookedly up against its shrunken body, seems to float against a brilliant blue background of water or sky. Yet the figure is caught and pinned by a web of dark wires and tubes„the respirator and IVs of a life-support system. The slogan, "He couldn't take the hit," is aimed at pregnant drug users. But to Campbell, and to many of the characters in her book, the warning works on many levels, representing "what Los Angeles could be„dying from drugs, hatred, trauma, hopelessness. It's a very frightening image, just as the riots were very frightening." Campbell pauses. "And what are you going to do about it?" she asks, rhetorically, as if holding that last puzzle piece out to her reader. "What are you going to do? "


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